Information about sickle cell trait for student athletes

Though it has recently raised alarm in the athletic community, exercising with sickle cell trait is generally safe and with proper awareness and education poses no barriers to outstanding athletic performance. Most athletes complete their careers without any complications. But it can affect some athletes during periods of intense exercise, when the inherited condition causes red blood cells to warp into stiff and sticky sickle shapes that block blood vessels and deprive vital organs and muscles of oxygen. The trait can affect athletes at all levels, including high school, collegiate, Olympic and professional. But through testing and proper examinations by a physician prior to competition, we can help athletes savor a healthy career.

What is sickle-cell trait?

It’s a generally benign condition in which a person inherits from their parents one gene for the oxygen-carrying element in their red blood cells – hemoglobin – and one gene for sickle shaped hemoglobin. It is not the same as the more severe condition, sickle cell disease, in which both genes for sickle hemoglobin are inherited. Those with the trait experience normal healthy lives. Only in situations where the body is pushed to extreme conditions, as athletes do, can the trait sometimes cause red blood cells to sickle and block blood vessels, denying oxygen to muscles and organs. But in most cases, carriers of the trait live normal, healthy lives without incident.

How common is it?

About eight percent of the African-American population in the U.S. carries the trait, but it is rare (around 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 10,000) in Caucasians. It is present in athletes at all levels, from high school through the professional ranks.

Are student athletes tested for the trait?

There is no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to compete. Sickle cell trait only becomes a threat in certain rare situations in which athletes push the limits of their physical conditioning. Being aware of the trait and taking proper precautions can help trait carriers enjoy successful and healthy athletic careers.